You’d think a play written in the 1500s about religious intolerance, isolated immigrants, and social injustice, wouldn’t have much to do with us in 2017. But, of course, you know those are exactly the problems that our society deals with daily. William Shakespeare’s THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, and its themes of racism, religion, and justice, is as thought-provoking today as ever, particularly in the way that it is presented by the current production at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum.
Alan Blumenfeld stars as Shylock, the Jew who demands a pound of flesh from Antonio, the merchant of Venice who is a Christian (played by Franc Ross), in payment for a forfeited loan. Antonio had borrowed 3,000 ducats from Shylock to fund the marriage quest of his friend Bassanio (Colin Simon), who is in love with the wealthy heiress Portia (Willow Geer). Meanwhile, Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Maia Luer) elopes with Lorenzo (Dane Oliver), who is also a Christian, abandoning her Jewish faith and taking some of Shylock’s money. As the story develops we see a merciless Shylock that is ultimately humbled and forced to convert to Christianity.
As Shakespeare wrote it, the main storyline in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE is the quest to find a husband for heiress Portia. Suitors come from all over the world to play a “game” - to pick one out of three containers, prepared by her father, that holds her picture and, therefore, the rights to marry her. The Shylock story is a secondary storyline.
In this production at Theatricum, however, the Shylock story is first. The play has been staged as a commentary on anti-Semitism. There are characters that spit repeatedly at Shylock and there are a couple of added scenes that serve it as “bookends” and that give a different tinge to the conclusion of this play, which is categorized as a comedy.
We live in a world that witnesses rising anti-Semitism (the overturning of headstones at a Jewish Cemetery in St. Louis and the carving of swastikas into cars in Denver come to mind). Still, and thankfully, the harsh exchanges in the play, the moments of clear unkindness and disunity, are uncomfortable to the audience. The team at Theatricum welcomes that discomfort, as it sees it as a way to conversation. After each performance, the actors are holding a short discussion with any members of the audience who wish to remain and share their reactions. On the date that yours truly attended, a good-sized group of about 50 remained for an interesting 15-minute conversation.
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE is the first play of the summer season at Theatricum, which the team has dubbed “Rising Up.” The plays of this season are meant to have audiences consider the lives of others and to provoke discussions that can lead to a better understanding of one another. What I heard after the play was just as interesting as the play itself, and it is always comforting to see that most of us long for unity and acceptance.
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE performs on selected dates through October 1, 2017. Tickets start at $25, available at Theatricum.com and (310) 455-3723.
The Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanium is located at 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd, in Topanga 90290. It will be cool at night no matter how hot the day, so bring a sweater. Bring also a cushion if available. You are welcome to arrive early and bring along a picnic. The space is gorgeous!